Séamus Boland: Civil society organisations should be part of overall crisis planning
Box-ticking consultation does not work: ways of encouraging conversations with solution-based proposals need to be foundMaria Koleva , Brussels
There are real fears that because the digital revolution is still in its early days, major mistakes will be made. These could be in the areas of data management, delayed processes, or even situations where an algorithm effectively makes the final decision. So the fear is that fundamental human rights would be infringed, says Séamus Boland, President of the EESC Diversity Europe Group, in an interview to EUROPOST.
Mr Boland, how have civil society organisations (CSOs) reacted to the pandemic and where have they focused their efforts in supporting local communities?
Across Europe, civil society organisations mobilised very quickly to provide assistance to people affected by Covid-19. Initiatives included organising delivery of basic food, medicines and services to households needing to self-isolate. In rural areas there was huge demand for this. Digital platforms were provided to ensure people could access educational support and a range of social contacts necessary to improve wellbeing. Initiatives such as providing transport for people who could not use public transport to travel for medical appointments and other necessary activities were arranged. Because civil society organisations have members who are often available on a voluntary basis and had time to help, these initiatives were set up very quickly.
The reality is that in many cases, these organisations provided an essential service, second only to the medical personnel working in hospitals.
Did the lack of direct contact during the lockdowns cause much damage to these organisations and did their reach shrink even more?
I would argue that the vast majority of organisations were not affected badly, except in terms of their access to vital resources such as money and technical support. Indeed, the crisis increased the numbers of people who were prepared to volunteer their services.
What is your advice to CSOs when it comes to redesigning their own structures to become more sustainable?
Sustainability is a huge problem and many organisations fail to continue because of this. In order to survive, organisations need three things: access to finance, access to technical support in the form of governance, legal and regulatory advice, and recognition by governments and public authorities.
How do you see the role of civil society in designing and implementing the Recovery Plan for Europe?
The first thing that should happen is that civil society organisations should be part of overall crisis planning, which is normally the preserve of governments. As can be seen from their activities over the past year, many organisations were being asked to step in as last-minute additional help. This needs to change. It is quite possible that the world will be faced with similar severely disruptive events in the future, which may cause a lot more upheaval. Unfortunately, the lack of any planning for the current pandemic has shown how damaging this can be to social and economic activity. The next time this occurs, the world will need to be prepared, and that must include civil society.
How in your view should CSOs contribute to the Conference on the Future of Europe?
We should be able to contribute by having equal access to the conference as other actors. Currently there is considerable concern that civil society will be given only a token role and not taken seriously. In terms of its contribution, civil society should argue forcefully to be part of a proper creative conversation on the future of Europe. The traditional model of consultation needs redesigning, and must include the ideas of civil society organisations. Box-ticking consultation does not work: ways of encouraging conversations with solution-based proposals need to be found. The groups who shout the loudest are not always the ones with the ideas. Over the past year, organisations have met with many people who needed help. They have often had to devise innovative solutions to problems. It is in this capacity that many CSOs can contribute to the future of Europe, so that practical problems are: (a) understood by the powers in Brussels or national governments, and (b) solutions will be acted upon and mainstreamed as soon as possible.
What is your view on the “digital green vaccination pass” that will be soon in preparation? There are fears, perhaps not unfounded, that this will be a mandatory document for travel to another EU country.
Again, the question is: will the people's approval be sought? I am not talking about a referendum. Instead, where will the discussion necessary to get the required support take place? I would suggest that a citizens' assembly be convened, which must include the views of CSOs. Their views, especially those that are constructive, need to be part of the actual roll-out of such a scheme. The other problem to address is people's right to privacy.
I would like to ask you a more general question: are the concerns of some observers who are predicting “digital dictatorship” justified?
I would say there are real fears that because the digital revolution is still in its early days, major mistakes will be made. These could be in the areas of data management, delayed processes, or even situations where an algorithm effectively makes the final decision.
So the fear is that fundamental human rights would be infringed.
Aren't we turning a blind eye to the fact that testing, essential during this crisis, is currently an extremely lucrative business and that if some day we can travel again, we will have to pay €67 or €135 (express) for a PCR test in the capital of Europe, and a similar price elsewhere? Where are we heading with such an approach, where some are using the crisis to make a profit?
All major crises or wars bring opportunities for profiteering, and Covid-19 is no different.
And yes, because we never planned for Covid-19 we are stuck with having to accept expensive solutions, many of them of a temporary nature. So to answer the question, the fact that a pandemic of any sort was never planned for, and the fact that civil society organisations were never asked, has created the perfect situation for those who want to make money and who are always waiting and ready.
Séamus Boland is President of the European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC) Diversity Europe Group, elected on 27 October last year. He is CEO of the Irish Rural Link, Board Member of the Inland Fisheries Ireland and Chair of the Peatlands Council. He joined the EESC as Member in 2011 and was Vice-President of Diversity Europe Group during the last term. In the past, Séamus Boland presided study groups on topics such as minimum wages, migration and sustainable development and was rapporteur on various topics related to agriculture, rural development, energy, social affairs and Brexit, amongst others Fighting poverty and CAP simplification. The Diversity Europe Group is one of three groups that form the EU advisory body EESC. It represents various social, occupational, economic and cultural organisations.